Last updated on January 8, 2023
Kids are out of school, businesses across Europe are closed, and flights are packed elbow-to-elbow. Ah, it must be August in the United Kingdom. I arrived in the UK in the late summer, and this is a rough time of year to plan a trip to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Although it’s a beautiful time to visit, it’s also stressful for budget backpacking, or budget travel in general. Because my yearlong trip was only lightly planned, I learned the hard way that you have to be on your game if you plan travel around the England, Scotland, and Ireland on a backpacker budget.
Can You Backpack the UK on a Budget?
It’s possible, but it’s a lot of work!
You see, tourists from the United States and from all over Europe head to Scotland from July through September; this means cheap accommodation is booked quickly, and tours and food all come at a high premium. Although I had my trusty Lonely Planet Great Britain, which had some budget tips, it only halfway works when you’re backpacking quickly during high season. Many sights in London and elsewhere are free—you can visit all the museums, and you can hike in the Lake District without spending a penny. But accommodation and transport prices are brutal if you’re not prepared, and for this reason you really need to plan your trip ahead of time if you’re traveling in the summer high season in England and Scotland, even if you usually like to wing it!
There six key points are ones I wish I had known before planning my time in the United Kingdom during the summer. These are the essential tips for budget travel across my two months in England, Scotland, and Ireland—they not only saved me money, but made it possible to find transport and affordable food everyday, and somewhere to sleep every night.
1. Book your accommodation ahead of time.
I’m definitely a fan of spontaneous travel and rarely do I fully book my trips advance. When I land in a new place, my MO is usually to book the first two nights of accommodation. The rest? I leave that up to whim, luck, and the advice of other travels. For traveling in England and Scotland during high season, however, that style of travel is extremely difficult. Budget accommodation is booked up, particularly on the weekends.
What’s more, even the cheapie beds are expensive. Some hostels and budget hotels in London raise the prices on the weekends. The only way can find affordable places to sleep is through a bit of advance planning. For me, as an American, every price is exchanged from my home currency into the dominating pounds sterling. If you’re traveling on a low budget, the difference of a few pounds extra stacks up quickly. When I first arrived in the United Kingdom., lack of pre-booking meant I ate up a three-day budget in one heartbeat. All because I had to float myself in an expensive city for a few days until the a nearby budget hotel had openings.
All of the usual hostel sites work for pre-booking. I usually use Booking.com or a hostel booking website. And I find that advance planning on Airbnb can net you truly great deals if you’re traveling in a group or as a family.
Also consider local listing like the Scottish Independent Hostels site—it has heaps of highly tailored local information, as well as local accommodation. If booking ahead of time feels too restrictive and you still want to be spontaneous, consider just booking your accommodation for Friday and Saturday nights. For traveling families, hostels are still a great choice, by the way. Independent hostels especially are family-friendly. Staying in a private room as a family not only costs less for the room, but your family saves money by cooking occasional meals (making breakfast at the hostel is one of the best ways to save money in your food budget!).
2. Plan your transportation well!
Why Use Buses in the England, Scotland & Ireland?
While trains are faster to be sure, buses are a great way to plan a budget trip in both England and Scotland. The UK train system is both extensive and expensive. Seriously expensive. Buses, on the other hand, offer rock-bottom seats if you book in advance, as low as 1 GBP between cities. I never booked months in advance, so my seats were around 10 GBP—still an absolute bargain considering a similar train ride cost upwards of 60 GBP.
The United Kingdom has a lot of bus options. Megabus is the cheapest by far. It’s also perfectly good if it run betweens the cities you’re visiting. But note that Megabus has limited routes and runs between mostly just the major cities in Scotland and England. CityLink is more expensive but still cheaper than the trains.
When Trains are a Good Option
Traveline Scotland was incredibly helpful in planning my route from one city to another. The website gives precise directions and timetables for taking public transport, and you can even select whether you want to include walking, buses, trains, and metro. Rome2Rio also has a good bead on all the different options if you’re planning to travel between two very difficult destinations.
If you have the budget, or if you simply prefer the trains, use the National Rail site to plan your UK train travel. It’s imperative that you book online, however, and book a month in advance if possible. If you don’t, the peak pricing can cost double or triple at the ticket counter.
Rental Cars, Uber, & More
If you’re really going to do it right, then a rental car would probably be most ideal. This is actually a cost-effective option if you are traveling with friends. The cost of splitting a rental will equal out when split among you. If you’re solo, you can have that same experience by booking one of the hop-on, hop-off buses that travel around Scotland, specifically, so that travelers can admire the Highlands.
And although the United Kingdom rightly has a fantastic reputation for public transportation, you should always download Uber onto your phone and have that option ready if you find yourself in need of quick transport elsewhere locally. While it’s not as budget as the tube, it’s nearly always a better price than the local taxi cabs.
For my own travels, I used a combination of all three of these when planning my own route around England, Scotland, and Ireland. I trained from London to the Lake District, then I took the public bus to the Isle of Skye and onward across the Highlands to Loch Ness and then to Edinburgh. From there, I took a £20 flight to Dublin and rented a car for three weeks. To help offset the expense, I picked up other backpackers at the hostels in Cork and Dingle and they chipped in for gas since they didn’t have to buy a bus fare.
3. Make a plan for daily your meals.
Nearly all hostels and Airbnbs have kitchens—and they are often surprisingly well stocked! With that in mind, I highly recommend cooking your own dinner at least a couple of times a week. Head to the nearest Tesco Lotus (it’s the most reasonable of the UK’s grocery stores). I found the easiest options for a good mix of eating out and eating in was to cook breakfast and often lunch. Pick up some fruit, yogurt, and muesli. Then you could even do sandwiches for lunch, or plan to eat while you’re out exploring and cook pasta and veggies for dinner.
It’s also possible to eat affordably in the UK. Head to the pubs for the daily special; this is a great option for lunch or dinner as the specials run at a time of day where you can often use the meal as either one. I used this budget hack from London to Edinburgh, and I always found something tasty and hearty offered at the pubs. As a vegetarian, eating out is a hard in some countries. But UK pubs always have vegetarian options, even if it sometimes lacks much imagination beyond glorified pasta. For this reason, I actually enjoyed cooking for myself, at least when I backpacked through the tinier British and Scottish towns.
Also, budget travelers should look for ethnic restaurants. In London, there are many Asian and African restaurants where you can find a meal for perhaps £6. Or if you eat meat, fish and chips and kebabs are plentiful.
4. Carry an umbrella.
It rains, it pours. In short: the United Kingdom is wet. You’re shrugging right now and thinking, “Huh, of course it’s wet, this girl is crazy to recommend this as a tip.” It’s even wetter than you imagine. Budget travelers need the right packing list: poncho, a rain cover for their packs, and a rain jacket. As a budget travel tip, this comes into play because you will be out in the elements waiting for public transport. Although the big cities have covered bus stops, there’s little chance you will find covered ones in the Scottish highlands. I met some travelers who had abandoned their travel plans because they had spent hours standing in the rain and were either sick or just plain tired. Plan ahead and you’ll be more flexible and happy as you crisscross England, Scotland, and Ireland!
5. Pick Your Destinations Wisely
The fact is, moving around will cost you more than staying in a few spots. But what is the fun of backpacking the UK if you don’t actually see any of the sites. Cities are actually going to offer some of your best budgeting for food and activities since there are so many free things to do. But smaller cities will offer a lot of free outdoor and natural activiites.
Here are a few popular budget-friendly big to visit in the United Kingdom:
- London: London is the capital and largest city in the UK, and it is known for its rich history, cultural attractions, and diverse neighborhoods. While it can be an expensive city to visit, there are also many budget-friendly options, such as staying in hostels or using the city’s extensive public transportation system.
- Edinburgh: Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland and is known for its stunning architecture, vibrant cultural scene, and beautiful natural surroundings. There are a number of budget-friendly accommodation options, including hostels and guesthouses, as well as many free or inexpensive attractions, such as the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle.
- Manchester: Manchester is a vibrant city in the north of England that is known for its music scene, sporting events, and diverse neighborhoods. There are a number of budget-friendly accommodation options, such as hostels and Airbnb rentals, as well as many free or inexpensive attractions, such as the Manchester Art Gallery and the Manchester Museum.
- Liverpool: Liverpool is a city in the northwest of England that is known for its rich cultural and musical history. It is home to a number of budget-friendly accommodation options, such as hostels and Airbnb rentals, as well as many free or inexpensive attractions, such as the Liverpool ONE shopping center and the Royal Albert Dock.
- Bristol: Bristol is a city in the southwest of England that is known for its vibrant art scene, beautiful natural surroundings, and historic neighborhoods. There are a number of budget-friendly accommodation options, such as hostels and Airbnb rentals, as well as many free or inexpensive attractions, such as the Bristol Zoo and the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
And consider these smaller cities in England and Scotland when traveling on a budget:
- Dundee: Dundee is a city in the east of Scotland that is known for its beautiful parks, cultural attractions, and stunning coastline. Budget attractions include the Verdant Works and the Dundee Contemporary Arts Center.
- Glasgow: Glasgow is a vibrant city in the west of Scotland that is known for its lively music scene, cultural attractions, and beautiful parks. Free or inexpensive attractions include the Glasgow School of Art and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
- Hay-on-Wye: Hay-on-Wye is a small town located in the Welsh Borders, in the west of England. It is known for its beautiful countryside, charming architecture, and vibrant literary scene. There are many free or inexpensive attractions, such as the Hay-on-Wye Castle and the Hay Literary Festival.
6. Plan to spend more.
One of the beautiful things about exchange rates is that you just don’t know what’s going to happen. From the time that I started planning my RTW trip to the time I arrived, the exchange rate from the US Dollar to Pound Sterling fluctuated nearly 50 cents on the dollar. I spent a lot more money than I had initially planned when plotting my trip across England, Scotland, and Ireland. I also had a cushion in my world travel budget, and that meant that I was able to still enjoy my time and not spend the entire visit pinching pennies too closely. Plan for a budget trip in the UK, but then add a cushion in case you go over-budget.
Think of it in terms of the range of fluctuation. In Asia, when the exchange rate fluctuates it makes on a tiny impact on the amount you end up spending on accommodation. In the UK, however, a change of 20 cents easily means $4 more a night just for accommodation. Stretch that across several weeks and you could be grossly over budget going into the rest of your travels.
Speaking of money, American travelers who don’t have a chip in their credit card should add their card to Apple Pay or the Android equivalent. All across Europe, the credit card machines are most effective with wifi-chipped cards, which most U.S. cards don’t feature. The hack around these is to use your phone—there are nights now when I leave my home in Barcelona with only my cell phone, knowing every single bar and restaurant accepts Apple Pay. It will make your time in England, Scotland, and Ireland much simpler if you travel with the right credit cards.
The United Kingdom is gorgeous—I do not regret for a second adding this place onto my itinerary for my RTW trip. It might have been, however, a poor choice as a budget traveler. I decided to visit the UK solely to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. I had visited England during college and only remembered hemorrhaging money. I did better this time around, but I could have also stayed longer in other areas without the huge expenses associated with traveling the UK.
In the long run, it might have made more sense to save the United Kingdom for an isolated trip in the future, rather than a part of my round the world trip itinerary. Planning England and Scotland as an independent/shorter trip it would have been less of a financial strain. Without the worry about my budget holding out until the end, I might have more readily enjoyed a few more pints along the way. That being said, I learned a lot and will be back. Budget backpacking has a learning curve, but there are ways and resources and even budget backpacking books and budgeting guides to help.
Inspiring England & Scotland Travel Reads
- Round Ireland with a Fridge: A very entertaining book about a guy named Tony and his adventures around Ireland, with a refrigerator.
- The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot: This is a fascinating and gripping read about one man’s journey. Robert shares his adventures as he walks from the chalk downs of England up to the Scottish northwest, as well as journeys in Palestine, Spain, and the Himalayas.
- Notes from a Small Island: In this book Bill Bryson writes about his life and adventures after moving to Britain in 1973. A fun read that will have you searching for flight deals to the UK.
- Lonely Planet Great Britain: I have tried all of the different guidebook brands, I continue to use the Lonely Planet even as my travels grow beyond backpacking. It’s laid out better than other guidebooks and it has the most thorough budget transportation sections to and from cities—this was essential planning a trip to the the tiny towns in Scotland.
Essential Travel Planning Resources:
Booking.com: Essentially the only hotel booking site that I use in the region as it has the widest and most affordable selection in Southeast Asia.
Rome2Rio: Super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more.
Expedia: Best site, hands down, for low-cost flights in the region.
IMG Global: A travel insurance option I’ve used for well over a decade and recommend for many other travelers.